Council Sets Budget Half Cent Increase in FY 15

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Thursday January 16, 2014

For months prior to formal budget discussions getting underway, Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard alerted the City Council that FY 15 would be a challenging budget year given the city’s departmental  increases in fiscal necessities. The council charged Hubbard to create a level-funded budget in order to shoot for a zero tax increase. At the January 11 council meeting, Hubbard and Finance Officer Sue Dorey showed the council the product of their work. “For this year, staff could live with the budget presented,” Hubbard said, “but this is as far as we could go without cutting operations.”

The executive summary outlined precisely what cuts were made in order to make this a reality. They included: paving (reduced by $300,000), payment to sick bank (reduced by $150,000), facility signage eliminated ($14,000), Facility Assessment Phase II eliminated ($30,000), City Hall improvements (reduced by $35,000), Contingency Fund/Grant Share (reduced by $125,000), energy efficiency projects funded through a VEDA loan ($44,500), Winooski Valley Parks District (WVPD) contribution (reduced to $33,000), contribution to capital reserve fund (reduced by $213,000), carryover from Balance Sheet required ($350,000), PT Planning Dept. Staff and Consulting assistance ($51,000 funded by not filling position vacancy (Economic Development), and City Center Consulting Services ($45,000 funded by not filling position vacancy (Economic Development). Representatives from the Winooski Valley Parks District were present to advocate for the $54,000 in funding they had requested. They expressed their appreciation that South Burlington was one of the first members to join the District in 1972 and therefore, benefits from having parks maintained by their staff as well as having an educator running programs in South Burlington Schools. They said that well maintained parks bring people and therefore, revenue into the community and they contribute to livable neighborhoods, but poorly maintained natural areas do precisely the opposite. 
During this tight fiscal year, several suggestions were made about how to fund the WVPD. Pat Nowak mentioned exploring what it would cost to maintain the parks in-house. “I have to believe it would be less than $54,000,” Nowak said, “for that money, we’re getting a benefit back, but I’m not exactly sure what that is.” Helen Riehle suggested reducing their contribution  of $11,800 to CCTA and putting that toward WVPD.  Riehle said she would like to see the city do as much as they could to get as close to the $54,000 as possible. Chris Shaw suggested having a separate line item at the budget vote to see if the voters would like to continue funding the WVPD, while Pam Mackenzie was inclined to see if the CCTA could go without the extra $11,800 this year.  

Another aspect of the budget debate surrounded the need for additional police officers. Police Chief Trevor Whipple re-iterated some of the challenges he expressed last fall when the council held their meeting at the Police Station; mainly that due to reductions in staff, he often has to move a public safety officer to patrol at a moment’s notice. Whipple also mentioned their need for a truck. 
After discussing these pieces and the budget as a whole at length, Rosanne Greco said, “We’ve cut mammoth amounts of money from lots of programs to artificially keep the budget low. This is a dishonest budget and does not reflect reality…we need to pay for programs we need including our parks…it’s dishonest to residents to say you’re not going to pay, when they will have to pay later. We need to do what’s right, not what’s popular.” 

Pat Nowak said there are many people in the community who are still out of work and she cited the high number of students who require free lunch in the district’s schools. “People can’t afford continued tax increases, “Nowak said, “We need to bring the budget in as tight as possible this year.” Councilor Greco pointed out that at the very least, the taxpayers should be given a solid estimate of what taxes will be like next year as a result of this budget. Pam Mackenzie said, “We were trying to keep a level-funded budget. We haven’t laid anyone off; we haven’t taken anything out of the pension. We’re trying to be responsible about public safety…the core pieces needed to run the community are not being cut. We have been hit with unfunded mandates this year (loss of a City Manager, interim zoning consultant costs, hiring a new City Manager, and legal fees). If we have to add ½ cent to the tax rate for public safety, I’m ok with that.”

Tom Hubbard interjected with a potential solution. If the tax increase was ½ cent, this would equate to $141,000. $70,000 of this would fund a police officer, $38,000 would pay for a Police Department truck, and the remaining $33,000 would go to the WVPD (almost $20,000 less than what they had requested). Also, Hubbard would explore whether the CCTA could go without the $11,800 this year, in which case that money could also go to the WVPD. This will be known by January 17th since that is when the budget is due to the steering committee.
This ½ cent increase represents a 1.18% increase overall. The impact to residents will be as follows: The average homeowner increase before factoring in income sensitivity will be $16.32 on an average house valued at $326,465 and the average condo owner increase will see an $11.24 increase prior to income sensitivity on an average condo value at $224,743.

Helen Riehle made the motion and Chris Shaw seconded the ½ cent budget increase. Four councilors voted “yea” and Rosanne Greco voted “nay.” Next, Helen Riehle voted to approve the budget as amended and Chris Shaw seconded. Four councilors voted “yea” and Rosanne Greco voted “nay” because the budget “isn’t sustainable.” 

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent